Category Archives: Business Intelligence

It’s Time for Strategic Business Process Management

I am coming off several weeks’ having to reassure clients that they are doing well and that – so long as they stick to their knitting – they’ll be ok a year from now. I have others who have required some serious, adult discussions. They lack a cohesive strategic plan, therefore, they lack in the areas of discipline, direction, commitment and – frankly – workflow IQ. They struggle with change, flexibility and orientation (“where are we?!”)

The disconnect is rampant. Perhaps it’s in the name. Shall we refer to business process management (BPM) as Strategic Process Management (SPM) from now on? You heard it here first, folks.

Strategy+Goals+Objectives+Metrics

I’ve heard others call it Business Motivation Modeling and agree that we need a deeper understanding of critical business drivers. This field and the broader business interests and stakeholders it serves needs to reminded constantly of the “means”, the “ends”, and the “influences”.  By keeping a strict focus on strategic goals (building the business, becoming #1, being fastest, cleanest, safest, whatever) and tactical objectives, business analysts and process engineers ought to be able to produce the outcome they’re looking for and they ought to be measure whether they’ve achieved their goals or not.

Environmental Analysis

However, failing to manage strategy and failing to carefully and comprehensively assess what is happening economically, politically, socially, technologically, competitively and legislatively will absolutely result in painful surprises. I have seen people very proud to have hit sadly meaningless targets lately.

Strategic and Technical Advisory Groups (STAGs)

I am calling for the formation of STAGs in every organization with 25+ employees. This committee will review and evaluate business process and other organizational change from both a technical standpoint and a strategic standpoint. Strict adherence to strategy (bearing in mind that strategy – not values – can and ought to change to reflect the environment) will be their direct responsibility. There will be an executive on each STAG until and unless every organization recruits a Chief Process Officer. Perhaps then, the brilliance of BPM will have been fully activated.

Advertisements

Business Process Data: On Dashboards and Windshields

Reading about IBM’s “Stream Computing” in Business Week magazine this week, I am reminded of a time in a meeting several years ago when I groaned: “I don’t want a better dashboard; I want a cleaner windshield. I want to know what’s coming and a dashboard can’t tell me that. Those are lagging indicators.  At best, a dashboard tells me what I have done in the recent past. I want to know what my suppliers and customers are doing as they approach…before they get here.”

On My Windshield

I never did get my Windshield. Today, we’re lucky if we have a dashboard. It would  put many of us in a small minority if we could have near-real-time indicators of what just happened  on our desk-tops. From a business process management perspective, how would life be if I could see changes in my supply chain before they affect me? If I could see my suppliers’ dashboards, would that be enough to give me an idea of what I could expect?  If, instead of relying on marketing, I relied on interoperable business data between my company and my customers, could I see their demand before they pick up the phone and place an order? That information would help me in innumerable ways.I suspect very large companies can afford supply-chain and distribution information management and reporting but what is a mid and small sized organization to do?

Is it possible that my contracts with suppliers and customers might involve strategic dashboard exchange? Of course  it is. In a business-to-business relationship, my clients might even think they were doing business with a pretty smart guy if they knew I needed to know something about their data prior to them needing to know they need me. I bet they would be happy to give me that information in small packets called “Bugs”. Throughout the day, “bugs” would hit my “windshield” and I would know what’s coming down the road. You could have a lot of fun with this metaphor. Landscape, traffic signs, intersections, accidents, traffic jams, you name it.

Operations, Finance, Marketing and Sales: Performance Metrics During the Race

Dashboards are helpful. Don’t get me wrong. I find them especially helpful once I have arrived. I can quickly look back over the course of the trip (or the day at work) and understand where I have been, what my top speed was, how many miles I covered and how much fuel I used (plug your favorite business metrics in here). A windshield, however, lets me calibrate  what is happening in the midst of a high-speed race. As a former football player, I can tell you that my stats after the game were a lot less important to me than was knowing where the line-backer was when I pulled out on a sweep. Failure to see my adversary or my teammates often caused me great pain. Successfully anticipating blows led to touchdowns.

The Importance of Anticipation: Getting Out of the Blind Spot

We are living through the negative consequences of not anticipating what lies ahead. We’ve all become so enamored with the rear-view mirror and the mounted DVD players in our SUVs that we have forgotten to simply out the window in front of us and drive defensively.

This may all seem trite and I may sound like I am beating this metaphor to death but I think we need simple reminders these days. Look outside your vehicle and assess what is happening down the road. Many companies have done this very well and managed to keep staffing levels and inventory at quite safe levels. Other companies were so busy fiddling with their dashboards and cell phones and doing their make-up while they drove that they missed their exit and went over a cliff.

What do you need to know about the road ahead and the drivers around you? What kinds of “bugs” do you want hitting your “windshield”? This is a great question for your next executive team meeting. It’s also a great question for your business analysts and your line staff.

  • what would you need to know about your customers’ “demand behavior” that would allow you to do your job better?
  • what would you need to know about your suppliers and supplies?
  • what would you need to know about the economy?
  • political changes around the state, country, world?
  • currency and credit changes?
  • social trends and patterns?
  • legal developments?

Keep in mind that as you’re driving in LA, for example, you don’t want to know what’s happening on the roads in Brussels. Keep your expectations “close” to you. There is little true and accurate value in looking “down the road” for more than 30-60 days at a time. Conditions on the roads are changing far too quickly. Pay attention to the drivers next to you where it matters most. The next bend in the road is far more important than the bridge several hundred miles away.

Give your data needs some attention, ask your suppliers and customers for data and use it effectively. Good data makes good information. Reliable information becomes intelligence and enough intelligence used appropriately over time makes one wise.

Building The Business Case For Process-Enhanced, Information-Rich Customer Service

We all need to revitalize our customer service, relationships with customers and motivate new levels of consumer confidence. That’s our job as business leaders and small business owners. Business is not a spectator sport. It is a high-speed art and science. Business Process Management offers a special opportunity to raise your customer’s experience to new heights. What I am about to suggest is not singularly going to turn things around for you but it is one thing you can do quickly. The more “mature” your organization is in its BPM development, the easier it ought to be to deploy. What I am talking about is not new. The credit probably goes to FedEx. It’s a standard in the minds of consumers and rightly so.

Take Me Through The Process

I am referring to the manner in which UPS and FedEx have incorporated tracking into every shipment. Information regarding my package can be as important to me as the package itself. Frankly, it’s common for me to feel more importantly about something arriving than is the something. For instance, the first time I used a web-based florist (flowers.com) to send my mother flowers, it was far more important that the flowers arrive on time. I was tickled to know the flowers got there and I never even saw the flowers! The same is true with my online banking. It has to perform flawlessly and reassure me that my mortgage got paid on time. I love my bank for the knowledge that my bill got paid. Every day, I get updates from my bank in my email. I am kept apprised constantly.

Information Is Service

As a customer, information concerning by business interactions is extremely important. By telling me when my dinner will be served in a restaurant, my server is allowing me to judge how long I can take discussing a proposal at the table with a client. When my Lexus dealership’s service center calls to tell me when a part will be in, I can better manage my travel schedule. When United Airlines sends email alerts that flight times have changed my kids’ flight 30 days in advance, I can rest assured that they will be safe and know where they’re supposed to be.

What’s In Your Process?

What information is embedded in your process that would add value to your customers’ lives? If a customer triggers an order, can you tell them where their order stands minutes, days and weeks later? If a decision has been made in process, how quickly and clearly do you notify them? If you must abide by certain rules in the disposition of their interaction with you, do you let them know what rule it is you are referring to? Refer to common BPM metrics (standardized in your industry) for more ideas or ask your competitors what they measure!

What Not To Do

My local hospital’s urgent outpatient unit (open for walk-in visits on weekends) treated me several months ago (May 2008). I paid the same co-pay I have for two years and went home with a prescription for an antibiotic. Very routine. HOWEVER, they failed to mention that they no longer contract with my insurer. My claim was denied by my insurer (naturally) so the hospital sent the unpaid portion of my bill to a collections agency. Said agency calls me and can’t tell me why my claim was denied. They didn’t have that information. I just owed them $113 or I could expect my credit score to take a big hit.

The story here is not the money and it is not the abysmal performance of our local hospital. The story is in the lost opportunity to manage information and contain a customer experience. I regularly refer everyone I know to their competitor.

Customer Service: Seize The Data

Look deep inside, walk through your own processes and find the valuable data. Talk to your customers (really talk to them!) and ask them what they’d like to know and why. This is basic but so few businesses actually take the time to do it. Information is relatively inexpensive so stop being so stingy! If you want my confidence, you will earn it with useful, accurate and timely information. And – by the way – I will tell you what is useful, meaningful, valuable information. I am, after all, the customer.

Protect & Preserve Your Intellectual Capital with Business Process Management (BPM)

Yesterday afternoon, I sat with a client who wants new business processes reflected in functional and technical requirements for a new information system. Of course, he has no idea what the current state of his business process actually looks like today. “It’s invisible” he told me. I mentioned that he may want to address the visibility of his current state – particularly if he has any concern that any of his subject matter experts (SMEs) might jump ship. He looked at me a bit puzzled and then lit up saying: “My God! You’re right. If any one of my department heads were to leave right now, I’d be lost. I have no idea how they do things or why they do them a particular way.”

When you document business processes, business rules, decisions, performance indicators and tie things together carefully, you’re protecting a very important asset – your intellectual capital.

Avoiding Brain Drain

For a decade, I had a team of directors reporting to me and each represented a discrete functional area. Prior to my baptism in BPM, I was the one laying in bed at night anxiously wondering what I would do if I lost one of those directors. In previous years, I had lost people to competitors, pregnancy and other family opportunities like cross-country moves and promotions. If you’ve ever been in that situation, you know you’re losing wisdom.

My first attempts at documenting work and procedures in simple swim-lane diagrams convinced me that I had answered my own unanswered question: how to preserve that wisdom so my business could continue. This was my business continuity plan. This was my knowledge management plan. All of it came together under the banner of BPM.

Preserve the Core

If your people are your greatest asset, you need to make damn sure you’re protecting that asset. Protect your people and preserve what they know with BPM. In the process, you will be prepared if something awful happens to them and you will, in fact, be launching your knowledge management initiative.

That’s the beauty of BPM if you can keep it accessible to people. It’s about efficiency, quality improvement, innovation, compliance, intellectual capital and knowledge management (and so much more). Keep it simple and spread the good word.

Any horror stories or examples you’d like to share? Comment below.

Thanks for listening.

Patrick

Expect the Unexpected

There is a profound article in the April issue of Fortune Magazine (Wall Street Special Report) featuring an interview with Nassim Nicholas Taleb who previously authored Fooled by Randomness and is now releasing The Black Swan. While the interview focuses on economic black swans (unlikely but not impossible events like the bursting of the tech and sub-prime housing bubbles), his concepts are very applicable to workflow and business process fundamentals.

Expect Volatility

Taleb describes black swans as unexpected (seemingly unpredictable) events that have great consequences. He explains that some businesses are fairly insulated from these events while others (like banks) are constantly exposed to expansive and expensive risks. Some of these unexpected events are very positive and lead to breakthrough innovation or the opening of new markets while others are very negative (see Bear Sterns). He describes “gray swans” as those conditions that lead to fairly predictable outcomes and gives the example of a turkey having been fattened by the butcher for a year being surprised when the butcher shows up with an axe. Our organizations cannot afford to think that time-bombs aren’t volatile. Eventually, they blow up.

Models can be Part of the Problem

His approach is to think outside the model. We have to think in terms that escape logic where potentials exist beyond our own data. If we fail to consider far-flung possibilities, we are sitting ducks (or swans). Some people resist this kind of abstract thinking and want to rely entirely upon the data they have on-hand when considering risks. I happen to agree with Taleb that models predicated on what you know are inadequate where risk management is concerned. Sometimes, the catastrophe that hits us contradicts all of our best modeling.

Setting our Intentions

I believe some people fail to expect the unexpected because they don’t want to contradict their own motives. In the case of banks and the sub-prime market, greed was the motive that outweighed any consideration for the black swan that visited the housing market. In this case, frankly, everyone had all the data they needed to expect the outcome. We just preferred to avoid thinking about it and agreed to a model that selected for data that supported our hopes.

What to do?

I work with a client who failed to heed the possibility that their budget would disappear before they’d made decisions to act on a project. Subsequently, California discovered a $17 billion shortfall (hmmm) and they were forced to abandon their hopes. They have a hard time convincing me with “we never saw it coming.” Consequently, thousands of people won’t receive health care and their very valuable project will have to wait years.

You can mitigate the arrival of black swans in your business by thinking outside your data, outside your beliefs and outside your models. Let your imagination run a bit wild when you ask “what if…?” You can also conduct PEST analyses annually. Ask yourselves what Political, Economic, Societal and Technological influences are bearing on your work, customers, employees, partners and you stand a better chance being prepared rather paranoid.

Knowing Where to Tap

We’ve all heard the old fable about the consultant who charges $1000 to tap the machine. $1 for the tap of the hammer and $999 for knowing where to tap. I submit that most of us – not only the consultants – know where to tap. The conditions for knowing where to tap include taking the time to inventory the various sources of information that might be reasonable indicators of just what it is that needs tapping.

This week for me included a couple of days at a conference dedicated to expanding the use of automation and electronic records in the mental healthcare field. If anyone ought to know about conducting an inventory of conditions to discover the point of greatest leverage for change, you would think it would be the mental health experts. Sadly, they are so busy treating people and have so few resources – particularly where public mental health is concerned – that managing how they deliver care is not their highest priority or area of greatest domain expertise. What I observed (and have observed consistently for nearly twenty years) is a field of well-meaning professionals struggling to know where to tap.

The same can be said for nearly every field and the legions of business owners and managers who don’t have the time, resources, background or expertise to know where to tap. However, knowing where to tap can be be about more than time, education, expert experience or dedicated resources. I want to argue that knowing where to tap begins with adopting the right perspective.

Metric Perspective

You don’t need to know everything about your current state. You don’t have to have well-articulated workflow and business process models and diagrams. You don’t have to start with an inventory of business rules. Gaining the right perspective concerning your current state of business operations begins with looking at the data you have in-hand. Even the most rudimentary business has a few sources of meaningful data:

  • a business plan
  • business goals
  • profit and loss statement
  • sales figures
  • market data
  • customer satisfaction
  • employee satisfaction
  • number of complaints
  • number of defective products
  • data related to time (delivery, production, receipts, etc.)
  • employee turn-over/retention
  • customer retention
  • any mandatory reporting
  • audit results
  • industry standards and benchmarks

Metric-Drive Process Improvement

Even a quick look through the data you have at your disposal will reveal the processes and workflow in greatest need of improvement. Since 85% of what your customers experience is process-driven, you will undoubtedly discover what your high-priority changes are. This doesn’t require a specialist and sophisticated training. It requires business discipline. Ignoring these facts and conducting business as usual starts to look a lot like benign neglect of the facts and your bottom-line.

Start Now

Have the courage and the discipline to gather this and other basic business data and dedicate the time and human resources to manage your own improvement. Workflow and business process improvement are not luxuries. They are practices you cannot afford not to indulge in.

Workflow Simple

I recently met with a client who was very interested in mapping workflow and getting some traction on his business process re-engineering for a future state he could only imagine. His interest was the product of a two-hour meeting wherein he learned that knowing what his people do would be a prerequisite for developing a new system RFP. As it happens, this shop has been in business since 1977. Had they ever modeled workflow or attempted to look at their activities through the prism of BPM? Short answer: No. Until now, they have relied entirely on policies and procedures. Their P&P haven’t been touched in years. Essentially, this fellow–the CEO, mind you–hasn’t any idea what really takes place on the “shop floor”. Needless to say, it is a shop that is not only bleeding money, it is missing opportunities to serve its customers more effectively and it is missing opportunities to make more money.

Does Size Really Matter?

The company I am referring to is small by some standards at 350 employees. My firm belief is that size doesn’t much matter once you reach a certain point. What is that certain point? I think once you begin managing subordinates, you have reached that point. Once you have to teach someone else what it is you do, you’re there. Another point may be once you realize that no single person handles all your suppliers and customers and products from end-to-end. Once, that is, you have activities and sub-processes that require changing hands.

Small?

If your organization is too small to hire a trained workflow or business process engineer or analyst, then I suggest you buy a book or two and start training yourself. Business Process Managementby John Jeston and Johan Nelis is a great starter on BPM and Learning to See by Mike Rother and John Shook will introduce you to Lean and Value-Stream Mapping. Getting a grip on concepts and beginning to model what you do will automatically open your eyes to what is possible.

Why?

Because it matters. If you’re small, it matters. If you work in a large organization, it matters. There are many reasons to commit the time and effort. Most of all, give yourself the opportunity to eliminate waste, innovate, compete, manage your supply chain better and make more money. Any organization can buy that.

“Not an IT Project”

I think the software vendors would be smart to find new ways to introduce people to workflow and BPM. Start by emphasizing that application development and SOA are NOT the only reasons to develop expertise and improvements. Automation is one of the value propositions. Not the only one. Make systems easier to use. Really simple. Make systems cheaper for small organizations. I know there are free downloads but they’re too complicated to use. Keep it really simple. Business and trade group journals and magazines need to do more to popularize simple approaches and the ROI that can be realized when people know what they’re doing in relation to what others are doing.

Broken Record?

I know I’ve said before and I know I will say it again. I feel like am I performing an autopsy when I go into an organization and discover that they haven’t any idea what they are doing. Fragmentation and dis-organization are the rule in so many shops. I use the word “shop” colloquially. Some of these shops are $50M and $100M companies and some are very large governmental organizations. It makes me simply sad to hear that tax-payer money was used to buy technology that nobody knows how to implement, for instance. It makes me sadder still to know that a healthcare organization can’t deliver quality care because the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing. I think pride is what may be missing as a driver. If you have anything to add, feel free to comment. I’d like to know if this phenomenon stirs you the way it stirs me.